Thursday, July 15, 2010

Self-Defeating Words

Back when I first learned about the Greek gods, I remember being confused about how Artemis could be the one in charge of both virginity and childbirth and how her brother Apollo could reign over both health and disease. All things coming from one entity is confusing enough in monotheism, but why lump together opposites if you can make up a new deity for everything? It wasn’t until I got smarter until I realized that you can view a thing and its opposite as an evolution, part of a continuum, or just interdependent aspects of a single concept. I’m reminded of this line of thinking — less so “A or B” as much as “A and B together” or “A then B” — when it comes to contranyms (a.k.a. auto-antonyms), or words that have come to mean one thing or the opposite of that thing.

Usually you can tell by context which definition is meant. Like with resign, for example. It can refer to quitting (“I’m resigning from this job”) or submitting to the notion that you can’t quit (“I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I won’t ever quit this job”). Both senses involve someone making a choice to quit, just in one case it’s the job and in the other it’s the struggle to quit the job. But I doubt anyone reading or hearing these sentences would confuse the meanings. In other cases, it’s not so easy. If someone threatened you with “Bring me shelled peanuts or I’ll beat you to death with my wooden leg,” you actually wouldn’t know for sure what this horrible person meant, because shelled can mean either “still in its shell” or removed from its shell.” So have fun being beaten to death on account of a useless word.

Wiktionary has a whole list of English auto-antonyms, some of which are quite subtle (trim in the sense of pruning a tree or throwing more stuff onto it, as you might do at Christmas), some of which are more problematic than you might have thought (suspicious can refer to the shady person or the innocent person observing the shady person) and some of which would be next to impossible for a literate person to confuse (“He secreted away the letter” versus “His wound secreted blood”). But there are two that don’t appear on the list or any others I’ve seen that I think should be considered for candidacy.

The first is naturalize, which is pretty straightforward. It usually refers to the act of taking something from its home to another place and then adjusting it to suit this secondary location — for example, making immigrants more like their new neighbors. But, taken literally, it could also refer to the act of making a place more natural — for example, making like a naturalist and restoring a given area to what it was like before humans showed up. I remember reading a sociology textbook in college that used the word naturalize in a way that half the class interpreted as “to change it to something new” and the other half as “to revert it back to what it was.” The professor attempted to clarify the point by likening this sense of naturalizing to taking a houseplant and putting it in the ground outside in hopes that it eventually matures beyond the point that it needs human help, but even that example divided the class about whether it was acclimation to a new environment or reversion to an original state. We never reached a consensus on what thought the textbook was trying to express. Now, years later, it’s one of the only parts of that class I remember.

The other word is stranger, I think: transparent. It has the literal sense of being like glass — letting light shine directly through and therefore being invisible or near-invisible. However, it also has the metaphorical meaning of “easy to see” or “obvious” in statements like “Your motives are completely transparent.” I actually find this use odd. If something truly is easy to see, why should it be transparent? Anyone who’s ever walked into a glass door will tell you that transparent things can be quite hard to notice. So what exactly is transparent in this figure of speech? I’d guess whatever disguise someone is attempting to disguise their true motives with. You’d see through the superficially friendly smile and observe the person’s nastier intentions. Right? The metaphorical sense of transparent works a lot like its synonym clear. You can see through clear water, while clear logic is unobscured and easy-to-follow. But the shades of meaning between clear and transparent are, to me, different enough that the metaphorical extension for transparent seems to just fall short of making sense.

(This all could be Latin talking. In high school Latin class, I remember being thrown by the fact that the adjective clarus, from which we get clear, could be translated as both “clear” or “famous.” But then my teacher pointed out that both “clear” and “famous” were both figurativelly adjacent to “obvious,” and that solved the confusion. Transparent, on the other hand, comes from the verb transpareo, “I show through.” So maybe that background is pushing me to think that transparency necessitates there to be something seen on the other side of whatever’s letting the light through.)

Aside from the obviousness of people’s motives, the metaphorical transparent gets used a lot lately in the sense of that idealized form of government whose inner workings aren’t hidden from public view. In these of transparency would be good, I say, but I would just prefer that people referred to this goal as “open government.” Every time I hear about governmental transparency, my mind goes to some omnipresent but invisible form of governance watching its subjects at all times, Big Brother-style. And I’d like to think that people don’t actually want that.

All things verbal, previously:

3 comments:

  1. If someone asked you for shelled peanuts you wouldn't know what they meant? Really?

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  2. My point in that example is the ridiculous life-or-death situation. Though "shelled peanuts" usually means peanuts removed from their shells, there's no logical reason it couldn't also mean "with shells on." I guess if someone is crazy enough to threaten to beat you to death over such a request, then that person might also try to get you on a technicality. Maybe a dumb example on my part.

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  3. Oh, and I once had a needlessly long and frustrating conversation with a guy who worked at a grocery store. Even though he seemed like a native English speaker, he not only misunderstood my request for "shelled pistachios" but also proceeded to tell me that I actually meant to say "unshelled pistachios" because it would be the way to avoid any further confusion. Sigh.

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